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The Chilling Human Remains of Peru’s Ancient Chauchilla Cemetery

The area around Nazca, Peru, might be best known for the enigmatic geoglyphs known as the Nazca lines, but if you head out into the desert south of the city, you’ll find something much more eerie. In the heart of the barren Sechura Desert lies the remains of an ancient cemetery, where the last burial took place some time around 1,000 AD.

An old burial ground might seem like nothing new – or special – but here, you can see the bones of the dead, preserved for more than a thousand years by the dry, dusty climate.

For miles around Chauchilla Cemetery, which was established around 200 AD, the stark Nazca Plain extends to the mountains that form the distant horizon. Between the earth and the sky, a seemingly endless expanse of dry desert creates the ideal climate for a natural sort of mummification.

Chauchilla Cemetery is an eerily compelling place, notable for its open pit graves where the bodies of the dead still sit were they were positioned centuries ago. Some remain complete skeletons, wrapped in shrouds, and all the skulls face east as Nazca tradition dictates.

Other skeletons, meanwhile, have been reduced to little more than piles of bones, neatly rearranged after grave robbers ransacked them for valuables, their skulls turned in an appropriate, easterly direction.

The grim human remains were originally coated in resin and clothed in cotton before being placed in their open mud-brick tombs, helping to account for the remarkable preservation of the bodies. In spite of their centuries-old vintage, many still have hair while others retain their skin.

It’s possible that wooden stakes found among the tombs were once used as drying posts, further aiding in the  preservation of the corpses placed there more than a thousand years ago.

Some skulls exhibit strange holes drilled into the bone, which initially caused archaeologists to question whether they had been taken as trophy heads in battle. Further analysis, however, showed that the bodies in Chauchilla Cemetery all came from the same group of Pre-Columbian people, making the purpose of the mysterious holes uncertain.

The site has only been protected under Peruvian law since 1997, making those human bones plundered and scattered across the Nazca Desert, courtesy of grave robbers, a bizarre and eerie testament to some people’s complete lack of respect for the dead.

Since it came under the protection of the law, Chauchilla Cemetery, which is located around 20 miles south of the city of Nazca, has found its way onto the tourist trail. The ancient necropolis lies near the Poroma riverbed at the end of a rudimentary dirt track off the Panamerican Highway.

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